THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
The Perfect Final
You know, when you step back and look at it, there really is no way that Euro 2020 should have been this good. Half-empty stadiums strung across an entire continent, knackered players: this should have been a tournament of incompetent cowardice. Or cowardly incompetence. Whichever sounds less appealing. Safety first football at walking speed.
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But no. From straw, gold. And, with no disrespect intended to either Denmark or Spain, this surprisingly brilliant tournament will end with the perfect final. The two best teams in the competition, in wildly different ways; a clash of styles as well as narratives. Plus, and this is important, both teams should be wearing their home kits. Unless UEFA do something monstrous.
It will be an occasion. Last night Wembley, arcing back towards capacity after more than a year of emptiness, was a hoarse-throated, nail-bitten, tear-soaked mess of nerves and quivering tension and blessed relief. Sunday will be the same, but magnified by the sight of a little silver trophy standing by the touchline, and magnified again by the generational nature of the achievement. England don't make finals. It's one of the rules. Nobody is going to have any idea what to do with themselves.
And it should be an interesting game, right? Obviously Southgateball isn't the most thrilling spectacle in itself, not that anybody cares this morning. But happily Italy are entertaining enough for two. You wouldn't call them perfect, but they are a notch above anybody England have played so far, and they seem to be riding their own wave of twitchy destiny.
We'd have said that Italy's manager was a cut above England's too, were it not for the fact that Southgate last night revealed himself to be an ice-cool assassin with Freon for blood and a scientific calculator where his heart should be. On goes Jack Grealish when the game needs winning. Off comes Jack Grealish when the lead needs defending.
Being subbed as a sub is usually taken as football's greatest insult, though in this case we suspect Grealish will escape with his reputation intact. This wasn't about him, or how he was playing. This was about utility. About having the right people for the task in hand. Sometimes you need a player to dribble around people and win free-kicks, and then sometimes, a little bit later, you don't.
Before the tournament, England's glut of bright young versatile attackers looked both strength and weakness. Brilliant players; what are you going to do with them all? But six games in, it looks like Southgate has clarity. Saka for this job and Sancho for that one. Grealish for this one and then, oh, not any more. If you want a really fate-tempting and generous comparison, it's a bit like that Italy squad that won the World Cup in 2006, rotating through six forwards — Del Piero, Totti and the rest — as the situation required. A little bit like that. A teensy, tiny bit. Maybe.
England start each game with a plan, and have the depth and quality on the bench to change it according to circumstances and the needs of game management. However! Exactly the same thing is true of Italy. England have the home crowd, the songs, the smells, the noise; Italy have the knowledge that they've already seen off Belgium and Spain. England have a sense of destiny behind them, an upward redemptive arc from recent lows. But then Italy have that too! It's going to be great, is what we're saying. Well done, Euro 2020. Well done everybody.
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It is a cruel sight, a football team running on empty. Denmark were England's match for the first half, riding out the early wave of Wembley emotion and then establishing themselves as a threat. Mikkel Damsgaard's free-kick was brilliant but it was Denmark's bright, inventive movement that troubled England's defence.
For the first half, that is. For the second, England forced their opponents deeper and deeper, locking them into their own half and denying them any time to collect themselves. The changes tell the story: a triple substitution on 67 minutes, a double on 105, and an injury shortly afterwards that left them a man light for the comeback. This was a squad with nothing left to give.
On ITV, Sam Matterface referred to Denmark being a "member of staff" down, which we very much hope catches on. Perhaps they'd called in sick so they could watch the game.
No surprise, of course. On top of the covid-season, Denmark have had a lot more travelling to do than England, and that's before we start to factor in the emotional impact of Christian Eriksen's collapse. Every eliminated squad has deserved their rest, but nobody deserves it more than Denmark.
And the squad can take comfort that they will shortly be receiving international football's greatest prize. Winning a tournament is nice. But each and every member of this Denmark squad is about to be the subject of speculative transfer rumours linking them to the Premier League, and that is the highest honour the game can bestow. Damsgaard to Liverpool. Dolberg to Villa. Kjær to Manchester United, why the hell not. Hopefully one of the papers loses track of things somewhere along the way and we get a Schmeichel to Leicester story. It's what we all deserve.
Meanwhile, In Brazil
Tell you what, unemployment really suits Lionel Messi. Freed from the daily grind, free to live his best life. And to shout at Yerry Mina halfway through a penalty shootout.
Sunday's big Euro 2020 throwdown isn't the only perfect final coming our way. Argentina's victory over Colombia has set up a showdown with Brazil for the Copa América, and we can only hope that new shouty angry Messi is up for it. Up in Neymar's face, chirping away.
Lionel Messi is almost certainly the greatest footballer that has ever existed, and the greatest that we will ever see in our lifetimes. Entirely understandably, he has also been guarded, hidden, a man of his own counsel. You could call him boring if you wanted to be cruel; we think we'd prefer something more like "apart". So while the Warm-Up will always have time for anybody that shouts "How about dancing now?!" mid-penalties, the fact that it's Messi being loudly and messily interesting makes it all the more delightful.
IN OTHER NEWS
HAT TIP (I)
While we're on the subject of Lionel Messi, here's The Athletic's Dermot Corrigan an eye-opening look into the state of Barcelona's finances. Turns out they may not be able to afford to re-sign him. Or to sign any of their new signings. Or… well, anything at all.
To put it bluntly, Barca are in a situation where the authorities have stepped in and taken away their wallet. As things stand, La Liga will not allow them to register the four players they have signed this summer — unless they first make savings of over €200 million elsewhere. The Spanish league’s strict economic controls also mean that, unless they make drastic cuts elsewhere, Barca will not be able re-register Lionel Messi, no matter how big a pay-cut the blaugrana talisman might accept.
HAT TIP (II)
Staying with Barcelona: they certainly hope he will be! Here's Sid Lowe in the Guardian on Spain's brilliant and disgustingly young Pedri, heir apparent to Iniesta.
Raised in Tegueste, Tenerife, little Pedri told his dad he wanted a haircut like Iniesta, until his dad pointed out that it was not a cut exactly. There was, though, much else he could emulate, from the shyness to the skill, the judgment of time and space, the ability to turn from opponents, holding the ball. That sense of total control and the calmness that goes with it, a gentle, easy superiority.
There are [counts on fingers] 30 Europa Conference League qualifiers on today. Thirty. None of them seem to be on television, though, so you could just watch the semi-final again. And again. And again.
Last seen somewhere above Wembley Way, floating on a cloud of good feelings, Tom Adams will hopefully be here tomorrow.
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